Reflections

Ancora Imparo

They say that a PhD is a ‘terminal degree’ and often academics who have achieved this status believe that their raison d’être is to impart their knowledge and expertise with little room in their heads (or heart) for continued learning. They become as musty and dusty as the paper their thesis was printed on. Collecting dust on a shelf somewhere… Please don’t get me wrong! Achieving a PhD is an incredibly long and arduous process. Often like a prolonged labour and painful birth. It is good to take a breath and look at the beautiful creation you’ve brought forth into the world. But, birth is a beginning, not the end and what is the point of reaching a milestone or destination only to exclaim, ‘I have arrived’ and then not explore?

‘I am Still Learning’

Image credit: Shelli Ann Garland, author

At the age of 87, Michelangelo is attributed with inscribing the words “ancora imparo” translated as ‘I am still learning’ on a sketch he was working on while at St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Image credit: history.com

As a non-traditional ‘mature’ student who started my formal higher education later in life, I have often pondered the significance of that small but incredibly impactful statement recorded almost 500 years ago.  What inspired Michelangelo to long for learning and understanding and to want to share that knowledge with others?  It seems most fitting that Michelangelo, and many others who have had similar sentiments were meaning “look at everyday as something new, learn something new, do something new.” 

Ancora imparo… Even after he was well established and highly respected in his career as an artist, sculptor, and architect, Michelangelo still knew how important it was to continue to learn. Imparting a more unspoken lesson that we should never allow ourselves to believe (or let others believe) that they’ve reached some sort of pinnacle, and don’t need to learn anymore. We should never stop learning and that lifelong learning should be actively encouraged and pursued from cradle to casket.

Of course, there have been many other very influential and highly intelligent people who’ve also promoted the importance of lifelong learning.  For instance, Albert Einstein famously stated ‘Once you stop learning, you start dying’ and Gandhi said ‘Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever’.

Image credit. Pinterest.com and twitter.com/iamfearlesssoul

I have had a burning for learning in my soul, as far back as I can remember. As my final parting words of my PhD thesis, I wrote ‘Learning is lifelong… Never stop’, and then I quoted Michelangelo as if I believed this with my whole heart.  I did… and I still do.  They say that a PhD is a ‘terminal degree’ and often academics who have achieved this status believe that their raison d’être is to impart their knowledge and expertise with little room in their heads (or heart) for continued learning. They become as musty and dusty as the paper their thesis was printed on. Collecting dust on a shelf somewhere… Please don’t get me wrong! Achieving a PhD is an incredibly long and arduous process. Often like a prolonged labour and painful birth. It is good to take a breath and look at the beautiful creation you’ve brought forth into the world. But, birth is a beginning, not the end and what is the point of reaching a milestone or destination only to exclaim, ‘I have arrived’ and then not explore?

In 2019 there was a trending ‘tweet, re-tweet’ occurrence on an education and postgraduate Twitter social media platform that invited conversation about ‘what I wanted to be when I grew up’ – in primary school – high school – undergrad – and postgrad.  I am sure that it was a question to encourage reflection about growth and maturity as we live and learn.  I participated… how could I resist?  I reminisced briefly about what I wanted to be at those varying age levels (keeping in mind that there was a 30 year gap between my high school and undergrad education). I dashed off my reply and clicked ‘+tweet’.  I didn’t contemplate my tweet very much at that time, but while I was completing the reflection section in the final chapter of my PhD thesis, my 6 year old me – 15 year old me – 40 year old me – and 47 year old me were calling out to me once again.  I revisited that tweet and I was blown away by the desire for learning and the sense of purpose I had always had within me. This was my tweet:

Image credit: Shelli Ann Garland

‘I want to be a teacher so I can teach the world’

What did I want to be when I grew up?  In primary school I wanted to be a teacher.  I remember frequently playing ‘school’ with my siblings and cousins, as a child, and I always wanted to be the teacher.  I recognized that there was power in passing on wisdom and passion for learning to others.  I wrote ‘I want to be a teacher –  so I can teach the world’.

‘I want to be a flight attendant so I can see the world’

In high school (secondary school), I initially wanted to be a flight attendant because as a Sagittarius I was a dreamer, I had a restless spirit, and I was fascinated by the cultures of the world around me.  I believed that becoming a flight attendant and travelling the world would take me places that only my dreams and imagination had taken me at this point. I wrote ‘I want to be a flight attendant – so I can see the world’. Of course, my parents were not in a financial position to be able to send me to the flight attendant school that I desperately wanted to attend in Florida, so I joined the United States Navy instead.  I didn’t see much of the world because I promptly became a mother, married and settled into my role as primarily a ‘stay at home’ mom.  

‘I want to be a Sociologist so I can study people in our world’

It wasn’t until after my boys were fairly independent young men, that I embarked on my ‘further’ educational journey.  That burning fire for learning was still very much there, buried deep in my heart.  My passion for education and learning was just as strong in my 40s as it was when I was just a young girl.  Throughout my undergraduate degree and even into my master’s degree, I was passionate about sociology and understanding people and the way that people function in societies all around the world.  My favorite courses were classes that centered around cultural awareness and global consciousness. I wrote ‘I want to be a Sociologist so I can study people in our world’.  

‘I want to be someone who makes a difference in our world’

As a middle-aged woman with many experiences and life events behind me, I desired to understand more about the world in which I lived.  To study people, places and events that I had knowledge of… And many more people, places and events that I did not.  I did become a Sociologist, and yet I was so hungry for more learning.  As a postgraduate – finishing my master’s degree and working in a job as a higher education administrator (that was less than satisfying for me), I set my sights once again on my passion to become an educator.  I wrote ‘I want to be someone who makes a difference in our world’. I then commenced my journey to PhD without a single glance behind me. One of my research participants said during our interview ‘don’t look back, you’re not going there’. This is a very Irish saying, and I really love it! It reminds me that life is a journey – FORWARD. Reminiscing and memories are lovely, but the journey is still always forward.

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@timmossholder

After posting that missive on Twitter, confined in the very limited word count, I sat back to think about my educational journey and all that I have learned throughout my life and indeed through my PhD study.  I realized that my personal and educational aspirations, my own beliefs, attitudes and values, have been deeply influenced by what I have learned from others – formally and informally.  My social interactions, connections, and relationships with others over the years, have shaped my identity and my personal aspirations, as well.  Today, I have come to realize that tweet, glibly tweeted in haste on a very early Sunday morning in June, represented my conscious recognition of my identity, my learning, and my life journey.  This educational journey is all part of my innate desire to make a difference in our world. At the end of my ‘terminal degree’ I realised that my raison d’être is to inspire a love for learning that is LIFELONG, in others.  

I, (like Albert Einstein), believe that once you stop learning, you start dying… I, like Mahatma Gandhi, aspire to live as if I were to die tomorrow, and to learn as if I were to live forever.  Who we are as social beings, are strongly impacted by the relationships, social interactions and learning moments that are enacted throughout our lifetime. I equally believe that active and continued (personal, academic, and professional) reflection as an adult learner is key to transformation and develops learning that endures.  I, like Michelangelo, am still learning. Learning is lifelong… Never stop. 

Sociological Imagination & Sociology of Education in Teaching Practice

You have to learn to walk before you can run. You have to understand yourself, your professional identity as a teacher, and the importance of learning about each of your students as individuals – understanding and reflecting on their unique backgrounds and their stories, before you even teach a single class. Teaching is relationship-based. Sociology of Education and the Foundations of Education should be introduced, reflected upon and then embedded – like bedrock, into every other teaching module on a programme. It is integral.

I was recently asked by my friend and colleague Dr Melanie Ni Dhuinn, to do a podcast for the Professional Master’s in Education(PME) students at Trinity College Dublin.  Melanie and I both lecture on the Sociology of Education module and due to COVID restrictions, all of the PME learning has been fully online.  This ‘remote’ learning is new for the students at the university, (let’s be real… for a lot of learners). Melanie thought it was a great idea to enhance the student’s live lectures and tutorials by providing them with Asynchronous learning in the form of a podcast that they can listen to at their convenience. Asynchronous learning is learning that students can engage with without the constraints of having to be in a certain place at a certain time.  It can be completed at their convenience. What follows are the reflection and narrative notes that I prepared in advance of our conversation together. I will post a link to the podcast through Trinity School of Education, when it is officially launched.  

Why Sociology of Education?

Before I jump into ‘sociological imagination’ let me start off with my view about ‘sociology’.  Many people, especially students, get very nervous when they hear terms like ‘sociology’ and about learning ‘sociology’.  My advice is to them is always to NOT overthink it. 

Image credit: Laura Chouette on Unsplash.com

We are all part of social communities and social relationships, and ‘sociology’ is a natural part of us.  We have all lived and internalized sociological concepts from the moment we were born and through our interactions with others.  All that sociology does is to put names or descriptors to what we already know and live… this should really help take the pressure off a student fearfully thinking they are learning something ‘new’. The science of sociology takes it a step further…

I really like Schaefer’s (2020) definition of sociology as simply the scientific study of social behaviour and human groups.  It focuses on social relationships and how those relationships influence people’s behaviour and how societies, through those relationships, develop and change. 

Image credit: www.frontiersin.org

What’s Sociological Imagination?

Let’s talk about the term ‘sociological imagination’.  

Sociological imagination is something that you should employ in your every day life!!! The term “sociological imagination” was coined by the American sociologist C. Wright Mills in his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination to describe the type of insight offered by the discipline of sociology.

It is simply a particular type of critical thinking that invites you to try and think about your ‘self’ and your awareness of the relationship between yourself and other individuals, AND your interaction with the wider society… but as an ‘outsider’ might think, rather than just from your own perspective, experiences, and cultural biases.  

Image credit: https://www.slideshare.net/brianbignoux/the-sociological-imagination

So, why is a Sociological Imagination important?  

The sociological imagination is the ability to see things socially and how they interact and influence each other. Sociologists would argue that you can’t make sense of your own behaviour, much less the patterns of behaviour in families, corporations, or nations, without developing that quality of mind that makes up the ‘sociological imagination’.  

Without perspective, we are apt to experience our private lives as being largely beyond our understanding or control. Kind of like as children… they may see that as their reality, but as we grow… and mature… and learn, we all know that this is just simply not possible.  There’s so much more to it than that, and so much that we can actually control. So many of our own experiences and possibilities are shaped by larger social forces, that we can’t function effectively either as individuals or as citizens unless we develop the capacity to understand those social forces that influence us. For instance, let’s talk about what happened in Dublin with the ‘anti-lockdown’ ‘anti-mask’ protesters. 

Image credit: The Irish Times

We would all have an opinion or a stance on what took place there.  The violent interactions that occurred and played out on social media. Whether it was intended or a product of heightened emotions… it was a tense and uncertain event  that would tend to make many very uncomfortable and raises a lot of questions and discussions in your own social groups, I am sure. Taking a step back and engaging your sociological imagination will help to critically reflect on and question the involvement of varying groups of people and ‘why’ they were participating – but with an outsider’s perspective.

Covid has taken a toll on societies all across the world and many are beyond frustrated.  Mental health and social stability are breaking down.  Families have suffered, businesses have suffered, children have suffered.  Now, more than ever, we need to take a step back, use our sociological imagination, and frame what is happening in our society before leaping to conclusions about the rationale of others.

Leaping to Conclusions… Image credit: Katie McBroom on Unsplash.com

Thinking sociologically can give an alternative view of familiar situations or issues that you experience in your daily life. It can highlight connections and it can evaluate meanings.

  • In some cases certain views and actions, like the protests, may sit well with your own opinion and personal experience, thus deepening your understanding and helping you to make that connection.
  • If it doesn’t, then articulating your objections, critically reflecting and formulating your own alternative will also add to your knowledge and understanding.

Sociology and engaging your sociological imagination offers ‘other’ the views.

As educators, I encourage my students to approach societal behavior, interactions, and experiences using their sociological imagination.  I ask them to practice briefly pulling away from the situations and concepts discussed and think from an alternative point of view – before acting. This is something that is vital in the classroom. 

Image credit: Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash.com

Sociology of Education, Theories, and Everyday Teaching Practice

Firstly, let’s be clear that in sociology, there are no definitive answers or all-encompassing theories to adequately explain how society is and how it operates, and it can differ drastically from one region, nation, and continent to another. It can even differ greatly from two schools in a community sitting side by side, or just across the road from each other. 

Sociologists and educators debate the function of education and there are three main theories that represent their views that I refer to as the three biggies in sociology of education: 

  • Functionalist Theory
  • Conflict Theory 
  • Symbolic Interactionist Theory
Image credit: Garland lecture slides – Sociology of Education

Functionalist Theory

Think of the Functionalist Theory – in the sense of ‘interlocking systems that must work together’ – a machine with parts that all have a job and a function, where everyone must do the job that has been allocated to them. Functionalists like Durkheim (the Father of Functionalism), Parsons (The Bridge Theory), Davis and Moore (Principles of Stratification), think in terms of the bigger societal picture. From a macro, or large scale, picture. Their focus is primarily the relationship between the different parts of society and how those different parts function together.  Everyone has a station in life and a role that must be allocated according to their station in life to keep society ‘running’ smoothly.

Conflict Theory

Then there is Conflict Theory – which stems from Marxism and the issues surrounding economics.  Their theories come from a more ‘meso’ – intermediate or middle lens. They study and theorise over the socio-economic stability or instability, of groups and institutions within society, and then relates these issues to the power struggles between those ‘machine-like’ systems of the wider society. Theorists like Bourdieu (Cultural Capital), Foucault (Knowledge and Power), Bowles and Gintis (Hidden Curriculum), and Althusser (Ideological State Apparatus) believe that society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources. A constant tension and clash between the Haves and the Have Nots, if you will. Conflict theory holds that social order is maintained by domination and power.

Symbolic Interactionist Theory

Then there is Symbolic Interactionist Theory – these studies the ‘micro’ aspects of SF and CT through ‘shared meanings’ and focus on the social interactions of individual or very small groups.  George Herbert Mead, believed that people develop self-images through interactions with other people. It would be one of his students, Herbert Blumer, that labeled this as ‘symbolic interactionism’. Other theorists, such as Cooley (Looking Glass Self) and Basil Bernstein (Language Codes) would identify as symbolic interactionists. If you were to do some research on classroom practice or looking at the interaction of students in a classroom, you would likely be looking through a symbolic interactionist lens.  

Of course, Feminist Theory comes into play in the sociology of education as learning theories and approaches are used to tackle ‘the big three’ issues of equity and equality in education. Social Justice frameworks, Universal Design for Learning and LGBTQ+ approaches.

Time for a Sidebar…

sidebar is a shorter piece of text that appears next to and accompanies a longer article. Sidebars can appear in publications such as magazines, newspapers, websites, or blogs. Sidebars can feature dissenting opinions, additional resources, real-life examples, or (in this instance) expert viewpoints that I hope will further your understanding from a sociological perspective.

The Connection between My Research on Volunteering and Sociology of Education

My research explored the lived-experiences of active volunteers in Ireland during their third level education and beyond, to gain insight and understanding of the volunteer identity and learning as informal learning over the life course. I examined the lives of the active community volunteer in Ireland who attended or completed post-secondary education, and who are currently volunteering for an organization, group, or individual within their community.

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@thedakotacorbin

I explored the concepts of social identity, sociocultural theory, and lifelong learning theory as a matter of civic education.  I wanted to understand for myself, and explain the personal ways individuals relate volunteering with their identity, learning as part of their volunteer experience, and understanding identity through learning. Sociocultural theory looks at the important contributions that society makes on an individual’s learning and development. Sociocultural theory suggests that learning is largely a social process and emphasizes the interconnection between people and the culture in which they live. 

Through the lived experience, I looked at volunteer identity from the view-point of the AV and their understanding of what learning through volunteering means, “if” or “how” those understandings change over time, and to provide a deeper understanding of the concept of learning that remains in their everyday relationships and volunteer practice. Researching from a sociological perspective and the concepts of sociology was vital to this research because I was looking at social relationships, experiences and impacts over a person’s life course. Because volunteering, is a social practice, it is so central to a person’s self-perception that it virtually defines them as a social human being. 

Volunteering is a personal expression of the greater ‘civic’ self which simply means [your understanding of yourself within a community].  It is a way of expressing yourself as a citizen with the rights and responsibilities of that community and with a sense of citizenship and belonging within your community. 

Image credit: uwstout.edu

This civic identity offers a relational element of being community-minded and a feeling of connection to the community by engaging and participating within that community. This provides a significance for understanding how we construct identity and make meaning [learning] through volunteering.  Volunteer engagement immerses participants in their community and society

Participating and contributing to the furtherance of a community in which one belongs is an imperative personal and social aspect of volunteer well-being, motivation and learning. Volunteering is critical for learning about yourself and those around you – your community, and a greater global worldview.

The subtle influence during formative education and the balance of identity and learning that can have big impact on volunteering as an adult. For instance, let me tell you about one of my research participants.  Xavier, started as a practicing teacher, then went on to become a principal, and then completed his PhD to become a university professor.  He said something in our conversation about his volunteer experience in secondary school and the informal learning that impacted him.  He said: 

‘Going back to my days of volunteering in school, it shaped my life in many ways.  It gave me a responsibility at an early stage in my life and the affirmation and validation to say that I can lead in situations and take on situations that I have acquired a series of skills and capacities for, and that while they’re not necessarily recognized in a school curriculum or in a formal academic curriculum, they are important life skills to have, and that informal learning that occurred during my formal learning environment impacted me hugely.’

Government, educational, and community entities have been calling for wider community participation and engagement, and active citizenship.  You can find them peppered throughout contemporarystrategic plans, mission statements and community development goals.

Image credit: https://twitter.com/DeptRCD

In December 2018, the Department of Rural and Community Development in Ireland put out a call for input on a National Strategy for volunteering because they identified that volunteers make an enormous contribution to Irish society… So what is the role of the Department of Education and institutions of learning for citizenship education and for volunteering? 

Service Learning, also known as Community-Based Learning broadly is an teaching and learning practice that links community service with learning activities and learning activities with community service… but it is still quite unknown and only in sporadic ‘pockets’ throughout Ireland and the EU.  For instance, theCovid pandemic has impacted volunteering and a call for active citizenship formally and informally.  Here in Ireland, Volunteer Ireland, who are the keepers of Ireland’s national volunteering database, has reported that there are more people signing up to volunteer than there are available volunteer roles.

One local meal delivery service (serving the elderly and shut-in population), saw a huge increase in the number of volunteers registered with their program since Covid 19.  They went from a small staff of approximately 5 volunteers to near 30.  This is just one of many similar stories across Ireland.  

Image credit: The Irish Times

I think that says a lot about the evidence base from a sociological perspective, on the importance of volunteering and learning through volunteering and the need for stronger, more dynamic citizenship education curriculum and programmes.  

Interested in finding out more about volunteering?  Click volunteer.ie to visit Volunteer Ireland.  Additionally, here is a video I did for Campus Engage that talks more about your volunteer identity and how to get involved, if you are interested in volunteering.

Sociology of Education, Policy and Practice

Bauman and May (2020) say that sociology comprises ways of framing the social world as well as methods for understanding and explanation.  To think sociologically and to embrace a sociological imagination means that you are not only taking the world and societal experiences in… but that you are considering what you are seeing and experiencing in the world.  That you are reflecting critically and then, I HOPE… taking action to make change.  

Of course, there are disconnects between policy and practice that continue to perpetuate social and educational stratification in Ireland, which… in a nutshell is simply society’s categorization of its people into groups based on socioeconomic factors like wealth, income, race, education, gender, occupation, and social status, or derived power. Sometimes, those who are in positions of power and authority over the governance of education, don’t clearly see what is going on, or to coin a military phrase – don’t have ‘boots on the ground’.  

I recently listened to a speech that Senator Lynn Ruane made in the Seanad in mid-2019 on the Free Education bill and the prohibition of fees and charges.  What she said really resonated the disconnect between policy and practice or ‘politicians and the lived experiences of families with school-aged children in this country’. I use this example, because thankfully the bill was passed.  

Ruane said that ‘the conversations that go on in the boards of management are not reflective of what goes on in a classroom’ and that while they might be well-meaning discussions, they are clueless to what is happening in the school yard and in the classrooms when the school places the burden of paying the lights bill and school budget on families who are unable to pay their own. She said that families should not be publicly shamed and made to feel guilty that if they don’t pay a voluntary contribution that their school will not be able to buy art supplies. 

Drawing from sociological perspectives during initial teacher education, as an integral part of teacher education provides a conscientious, inclusive, inquisitive perspective to looking at social processes and social interactions within teaching and learning, but more importantly linking to the wider societal perspective. It is one thing to learn sociology of education, but so much more to internalise it and then to take action. 

Sociology connects the what (which is education)… and the why (which is social interaction and relationship) to provide cultural explanations, theories and perspectives that are necessary for understanding people, groups, interactions and global perspectives. 

Sociology of Education, along with the other social sciences and theories of education – such as Philosophy, Psychology, and the history of education should be an integral FOUNDATION of every teacher education programme.  This is an important element that can be lost sometimes in the rush to practice placement, teaching subject mastery and teaching methodologies. 

You have to learn to walk before you can run.  You have to understand yourself, your professional identity as a teacher, and the importance of learning about each of your students as individuals – understanding and reflecting on their unique backgrounds and their stories, before you even teach a single class.  Teaching is relationship-based.  Sociology of Education and the Foundations of Education should be introduced, reflected upon and then embedded – like bedrock, into every other teaching module on a programme.  It is integral. 

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@serrah

Education is an institution and is socially significant because teaching, learning and research often focuses around sociological questions that are addressed in education like:

Are students safe in schools?​
Should basic competencies in key subjects outweigh the importance of other subject areas?​
How should education be funded?  
Is one school/area more deserving than another?​
What type of teachers and classroom environments provide the best learning experience for students?

Covid_19 and Sociology of Education in Initial Teacher Education

I think that one of the most important impacts has been the obvious issue of ‘isolation’ and what we MUST do to make ‘virtual’ lectures and learning meaningful and impactful for the students.  Covid has certainly forced everyone’s hand at learning and teaching digitally… and from a sociology perspective as well as a personal perspective, I have found this challenging and really rewarding. 

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@pillepriske

Challenging… because as a very involved educator, who personally thrives on physical, social interaction, and relationship building, I had to re-evaluate these meanings and embrace change.  

Rewarding… because as the days, and weeks, and months pressed on, I found new ways to engage and build relationships with my students, virtually.  One of these was implementing an virtual ‘open office, open door’ policy and mode of contact with students that helped them to reach out to me with the assurance that I cared for their well-being first, and foremost and that I was available as a resource for whatever they may need.  

As far as teaching sociology of education to students, through Covid, I think that the experience is largely dependant upon the organization and creativity of the lecturer and the module lead, as well as the mind-set of the student. 

Most students that I received feedback from were initially worried if they were going to be able to engage effectively with their course content and whether they would receive the required help if they encountered difficulties with any part of the sociology of education or receive assistance with the completing their reflections or assignments.  This is the sentiment felt across all levels of learning!

Creating an environment of cohesivity across the course content and between the teaching team is absolutely vital.  As students sometimes feel disconnected from course materials and content in normal circumstances, the environment of social distancing and physical closures of campus and classrooms magnify this disconnect. 

Getting this right means that as educators, we need to meet with our module and programme teaching team regularly to outline and ensure that the connections are made across the programme. Students will recognize very quickly if the teaching team is not connected and this will diminish their engagement and the impact of the course content on their learning.

As for how Covid has impacted students perspective of sociology of education? I think that it has impacted them personally in a very deep way.  Many students expressed to me that they easily feel invisible and overwhelmed, and their own home/learning environment can be very stressful with nowhere else to go to study or work quietly, and again to feel isolated and alone is a lesson in sociology in and of itself.  

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@brett_jordan

With that said, I think that Covid has provided a very eye opening and self-identifying element of sociology of education.  Everyone is living these sociological and societal issues on a daily basis and if the lecturer is very good about recognizing it, and capitalizing on it, in discussions and reflections, it will be something that can make HUGE impact on a student understanding and living sociology of education in their everyday lives. 

We Are Here!

We need to educate teachers to think about pushing past the superficial treatments of culture and get to the depth of student’s identity and successful learning and to consider Adams (2007) argument that how we teach is distinct from what we teach. We need to set extremely high expectations for every student’s success and maintaining that at all costs. Having a real understanding of what works best for each individual to acquire the highest standard of education regardless of race, class, ethnicity, immigrant status, socio-economic status, or ability.

I am currently working on a research project with my friend and colleague, Dr Carol Ann O’Síoráin.

This reflection centres around content from our forthcoming publication on learner voice, social justice, and a Universal Design for Learning(UDL) approach to teaching and learning entitled Every Little Voice Matters: Learner voice, social justice, and a UDL approach to teaching and learning. We recorded our discussion on YouTube and the video link is available at the end of this reflection.

Image depicts Dr Seuss’s Horton the Elephant on a blue background with the title of our publication in preparation with the word’s ‘We are here! We are here! We are here!’

What follows is the narrative of my contribution to the discussion.  Carol Ann continues the conversation about doing things right and doing the right things… and you will definitely need to listen to, or watch the video to capture her important contribution to the discussion. (I will upload the audio file soon).

Carol Ann and I believe that ongoing professional conversation is vital, and we invite you to contribute to this discussion with some points to ponder. Here is an online link that you can use to engage with questions that we have provided for you. https://padlet.com/sgarland12/b87dzlc6341xykv4

Points to Ponder

  1. What does a socially just education look like in the Irish context?
  2. What examples or suggestions do you have that might contribute to a model for marrying educational policy making and research with inclusion and socially just classroom practice?
  3. Has your concept of inclusion become your own oppressor? Have you fallen into an ‘ethical sinkhole’? 
  4. When it comes to inclusive policy and practice, ‘are you doing the right thing, or doing things right?’
  5. Further reflections on learner voice, social justice and UDL for teaching and learning

Our conversation is approached from a sociological perspective about why learner voice is critical for a socially just and equitable education in Ireland.  

Let’s begin, shall we?

Schaefer (2020) defines sociology as simply the scientific study of social behaviour and human groups.  It focuses on social relationships and how those relationships influence people’s behaviour and how societies, through those relationships, develop and change. As you read this, I encourage you to engage your sociological imagination. 

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@andressalas

Your sociological imagination is simply a particular type of critical thinking that invites you to think about your ‘self’ and your awareness of the relationship between yourself and other individuals, AND your interaction with the wider society… but to think as an ‘outsider’ might think, rather than just from your own perspective, experiences, and cultural biases.  

Watch this short video for a better understanding of the sociological imagination. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=my_zyLCRBms

Let me see if I can further set the stage for this reflection. Do you know the story of Horton Hears a Who, by Dr Seuss?  It is the story of a kind-hearted elephant named Horton, who lives in the Jungle of Nool. 

Hear the full story of Horton Hears a Who by: Dr Seuss here: https://youtu.be/B-i1E1UbwVI

Horton is a happy, easy-going guy who enjoys all the benefits in life, of being a citizen of Nool. But, unlike many of his fellow ‘Jungle-dwellers’ he’s a very ‘intuitive’ and open kind of an elephant (in touch with his sociological imagination, let’s say), so when he hears a tiny voice calling out to him, he doesn’t ignore it.  He investigates… He listens and searches and finds the tiny world of the Whos’ on a speck of dust – a whole city of little Whos’, who are very different from the people in the Jungle.  He can’t really see them, but his big ears come in handy and he can certainly hear them.

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@sharonmccutcheon

The problem is that the other citizens in the jungle of Nool cannot hear the Whos’ and frankly are not bothered with the possibility that they even exist. Horton is mocked and threatened by the others in his jungle world for believing in, and caring for those people in the other world.   But that doesn’t stop Horton. He works tirelessly to advocate for the little Whos’ and brings to light the importance of their world and the idea that listening to difference and working together to protect the right of ‘voice’ can be transformative for everyone. 

Quote from the Dr Suess book ‘Horton Hears a Who’.
Image credit: https://quotesgram.com/horton-hears-a-who-quotes/

Why do I start with this story?  Because, Horton is a lesson in social justice and the audacious possibility that if we respect and listen, every little voice counts! There is a significant disconnect between theory and practice in teacher education, and Carol Ann discusses this in more detail in our recorded discussion.

What I want to expand on, is the issue of Equity and Equality and the concepts of Horizontal and Vertical Equity. 

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@erickarim

The barriers to equitable education can affect groups based on race, gender, and many other factors. The issues are not only who is being targeted but also how we try to resolve them. In terms of equity vs equality in the classroom, most schools focus on horizontal equity. Catapano (2013) defines horizontal equity in education as treating people who are already assumed equal in the same way. Horizontal equityis only useful in homogenous schools, where each person really is given the same opportunities in life. 

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@nate_dumlao

But here’s the thing… in most schools, students come from a variety of backgrounds– some more privileged than others. For this reason, educators should focus on vertical equity, which assumes that students have different needs and provides individual resources based on these needs. (waterford.org)

UDL is based on this design idea. Social Justice AND an equitable education is for everyone. 

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@karen1974

Basically, a social justice framework or approach, is a way of seeing and acting aimed at resisting unfairness and inequity while enhancing freedom and possibility for all. Schools often unconsciously reproducerather than remedy the patterns of social exclusion and oppression seen within the larger society. A social justice framework in education presents a pathway to make sure that we are ALL seen as human beings and that we’re ALL equitably treated.  

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@jessbaileydesigns

We need to educate teachers to think about pushing past the superficial treatments of culture and get to the depth of student’s identity and successful learning and to consider Adams (2007) argument that how we teach is distinct from what we teach. We need to set extremely high expectations for every student’s success and maintaining that at all costs.  Having a real understanding of what works best for each individual to acquire the highest standard of education regardless of race, class, ethnicity, immigrant status, socio-economic status, or ability. 

Teaching from a socially-just perspective is simply a commitment to challenging social, cultural, and economic inequalities imposed on individuals arising from any gap in the distribution of power, resources, and privilege. (mills.edu)

Unfortunately, making educators conform to a strict set of guidelines sets the expectation that each class fits a prefab curriculum, when in reality, each and every class (and individual student) learns uniquely different. Social justice demands equity for all students… not equality, but equity.  Equality is giving every student the same thing. It is like giving everyone a size 38 pair of shoes and expecting them fit.  

Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@markusspiske

Equitable education works when teachers are empowered with a sociological imagination and mindset, to understand and incorporate students’ backgrounds and experiences as strengths rather view them as hurdles to overcome. (mills.edu)

In Ireland, now more than ever, the need for educators to affect change in education is critical.  A recent Irish Times report (2019) on class and disadvantage in education printed what we have all experienced in the last decade or so… Ireland is more ethnically and socially diverse today than it has ever been. (IrishTimes.com)

At a disadvantage: while middle-class girls thrive, working-class boys struggle. Image Credit: Moment/Getty (IrishTimes.com)

Schools with the highest need for English learners’ curriculum don’t have an adequate number of qualified teachers or school leaders. They go on to state that ‘the bottom line is that there are gaps in the educational system that are tracked and measured disproportionately. These inherent gaps are satisfied for students with wealthy families who have an excess of out-of-school resources BUT remain for students with poor families.  

In 2015, the department of education and skills, the department of children and youth affairs and Comhairle na nÓg initiated the The National Strategy on Children and Young People’s Participation in Decision-making 2015-2020.

They were interested in ensuring that students in Ireland have a voice and input in decisions that affect their lives – such as education.  They produced a very informative report called ‘So How Was School Today? Report of survey on how young people are taught and how they learn’, that validates the importance of student voice in education reform.

Devine (2017) states ‘government policy is clear that children and young people should have a say in matters that directly affect them and that they should be empowered to express their views’. But the findings from the survey and report highlight the lack of voice young people have in school and that they most certainly believe they should have more say.  

A new survey of students suggests a serious mismatch between how priority subjects on the school curriculum are being experienced by our younger citizens, says Prof Dympna Devine. (IrishTimes.com) Image Credit: iStock

The report confirms that gender is an issue in relation to the level of stress in school… and that exam stress is a big factor for student well-being as well as how teachers teach. The survey exposes the need for further research on teacher influence and attitudes toward students and the affect these biases have on student well-being and attitudes toward school themselves.  (IrishTimes.com)

The Children’s School Lives study found that about half of teachers feel standardised tests are causing anxiety among children and parents. Photograph: iStock
(IrishTimes.com)

The survey also revealed that as young people move from the primary level through the secondary level, they become less positive in their attitudes about school. They suggest that further research is needed on the kinds of learning methods that challenge and stimulate students, and that encourage students to be actively involved. The benefits of such methods need to be explored so that the relationships between teachers and students are based on trust and respect. 

Finally, their report indicates a need for further research to explore how teaching and learning in schools is influenced by social class and ethnicity… and if this differs for boys and girls, and from one kind of school to another. 

A moving address from Senator Lynn Ruane on social justice and inequity in Irish society.

Educators are responsible for creating meaningful change and Social justice is a mindset (mills.edu).  Actively using your sociological imagination. The goal is that as a student teacher in Initial Teacher Education (ITE), you learn to implement it, not recite it for a test.  

A Social Justice Framework needs to be incorporated into both ITE and CPD for educators and administrators for a more equitable, inclusive and holistic learning environment that incorporates the powerful tool of allowing learner voice to direct us in what they need for successful learning. By learning in a social justice-oriented setting, educational leaders go on to impart this pedagogy to the school systems they serve.

A classroom practicing social justice will encourage:
(by the teacher with the learner)
1. Active contributions from the students in the class and real-life, societal and community connections between students and teachers.
2. Active contributions from the students in the class and real-life, societal and community connections between students and teachers. 
3. Active contributions from the students in the class and real-life, societal and community connections between students and teachers.
4. Implementing an actionable and measurable curricula so that you can track improvement.
5. Constant discourse and comfortability with dissent, tension and inviting those uncomfortable conversations in a safe space and with a sociological imagination. 

‘A social justice classroom is one that is critical in nature, thus, we should be constantly encouraging students to question the world around them as well as the schools they attend.’ 

— Belle (2019)

edweek.org

It is important to see this again:

Such important conversations need to be had around these issues.  Let’s keep the discussion going.

I hope that you’ll take the time to visit the link below and reflect on the five questions presented.

Click the ‘Points to Ponder’ link below to reflect on the questions presented.

Points to Ponder

  1. What does a socially just education look like in the Irish context?
  2. What examples or suggestions do you have that might contribute to a model for marrying educational policy making and research with inclusion and socially just classroom practice?
  3. Has your concept of inclusion become your own oppressor? Have you fallen into an ‘ethical sinkhole’? 
  4. When it comes to inclusive policy and practice, ‘are you doing the right thing, or doing things right?’
  5. Further reflections on learner voice, social justice and UDL for teaching and learning

Reference List

Adams, M. (2007). Pedagogical frameworks for social justice education. In M. Adams, L. A. Bell, & P. Griffin (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice (p. 15–33). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Belle, C. (2019). What is Social Justice Education Anyway? Education Week. 23 January 2019.

https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-what-is-social-justice-education-anyway/2019/01 Accessed: 19 January 2021. 

Catapano, S., & Thompson, C. (2013). Teachers begin developing socio-cultural awareness in early field experiences. Learning Communities13, 13-27.

Devine, D. (2017). So, how was school today? Report of a survey on how young people are taught and how they learn.

Garland, S.A. & O’Síoráin, C.A (In prep) Every Little Voice Matters: Learner voice, social justice, and a UDL approach to teaching and learning.  

The synopsis narrative of Horton Hears a Who adapted from: https://thebookbadger.com/we-are-here-horton-hears-a-who-and-activism/

https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/9128db-national-strategy-on-children-and-young-peoples-participation-in-dec/

Why I Teach…

Dr. Behler taught me that although the world is suffering, it is also full of the ability to overcome it and to never stop learning because life never stops teaching.

As part of a recent Professional Master’s in Education student orientation induction process at Hibernia College, I was asked to create a video about why I teach. Any quality professional master’s in education programme should strive to instil within the student a personal connection between the theories of education, their practice in the classroom, and most importantly a connection to their own professional teacher identity. This is just a quick story about why I was inspired to teach. The experiences and more specifically, the teachers, during my education that impacted me greatly and grounded my teacher identity. Personal and professional reflection is key to connect with and continually engage with your own teaching identity. I encourage you to think about why you teach, or… if you are thinking of becoming a teacher, why you want to teach. It is an important practice to Engage – Inspire – Transform. 

What follows is the narrative of my video, ‘Why I Teach’.   You can view the video at the end of this narrative. 

Why I Teach

John Dewey is known as the father of Experiential learning and is often seen as the proponent of learning by doing – rather than learning by passively receiving. He believed that each child was active, inquisitive and wanted to explore. Dewey referred to his philosophy as instrumentalism, rather than pragmatism, though the two are related. Instrumentalism sees the value of an idea or tool being its use as an instrument for getting results. Bearing this in mind, learning should be relevant and rewarding – rather than only theoretical. https://www.thepositiveencourager.global/john-deweys-approach-to-doing-positive-work/ Image credit: Amy Stott https://www.pinterest.ie

Maribeth Whitehouse, a special education teacher from the Bronx, New York, wrote a piece about why she loves teaching, that first appeared on the Learning Matters blog called Why I Teach in May 2012.  Her piece was entitled “I Teach Because” and talked about the most rewarding aspects of being a teacher to children with special needs.

This got me thinking about my own educational journey, the teachers who inspired me over the years, and why I wanted to become a teacher of teachers. Maribeth Whitehouse has her story.  This one is mine:

If you are a Generation X… or anywhere near my age, you would remember the typical school lunch similar to what it depicted in this image. Image credit: https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk

I teach because… 

Mrs. Rosen, my 1st grade teacher at Horace Mann Elementary School, would bring a group of students’ home to her house for a special lunch during our given birthday month for sandwiches, sparkling juice, and a dessert of chocolate chip cookies and ice cream.  She made each student feel important and taught us that relationships matter.

The Muppet Show – an iconic television series from the mid-1970s until the mid-1980s. Puppets like Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, and many more, entertained families on a weekly basis. There was always a special ‘human’ guest on the show – typically a famous Hollywood star who would serve as master of ceremonies and appear in various puppet skits. Image credit: Jim Henson Productions https://www.henson.com/

I teach because…

In middle school, I was very small for my age, I was awkward, and desperate to fit in with the cool kids.  Mr. Wallace, my music teacher, wrote a musical play based on the television program “The Muppet Show” which was all the rage back in those days.  He believed that I had musical talent and gave me the role of ‘Trixie LaBomba’ the guest star host.  In doing so, Mr. Wallace taught me to believe in myself.

Image depicts a teacher writing french words on a white board with blue ‘dry erase’ marker. Image credit: https://www.freeimages.com

I teach because…

In high school, I wasn’t the most academically sound student, because I was often more concerned with my social life and social standing than my academic standing.  Miss Griffith, my French teacher, made learning about French language and culture fun.  In a country where very few Americans ever travel outside of the continent of North America their entire lives, Miss Griffith sparked my interest in a more global worldview.  

Image depicts Dr Thomas Behler, Professor of Sociology (retired) working at his desk with a screen reader and braille printer at Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan, USA. Image credit: https://www.fsutorch.com

I teach because…

The day I walked into my first sociology class at Uni, I was introduced to a white-haired man, with the most positive, jolly disposition, who had been born completely blind.  This man was Dr Tom Behler, Senior Professor of Sociology.  Dr. Behler challenged every bias and pre-conceived notion that I had about society, about disability, and about access to education.  This man, despite all odds, and despite his lack of sight, was an incredibly well-educated and successful.  A community member, teacher, husband, father and grandfather.  Dr. Behler taught me that although the world is suffering, it is also full of the ability to overcome it and to never stop learning because life never stops teaching.

Image depicts white blocks that spell out the word TEACH on a wood-grained table with stacks of books blurred in the background. Image credit: https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-euykl

I teach because…

I care.

I teach because…

Because it is what I am meant to do.

I teach because…

You (the learner) are important to me.

Image depicts a childe writing a quote in white chalk on a green chalkboard: Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world – Nelson Mandela. Image credit: https://www.wordsonimages.com

I teach because…

“Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world” – Nelson Mandela

You can find this video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUodKLf4rRw